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Between The Lines
May 24, 1997 Article

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Between The Lines By Joel Drucker
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French Open Preview and Predictions

One year I was writing a French Open preview and interviewing a tennis legend for his thoughts on the eventual outcome. "No, he's not patient enough," went the verdict on one. "It's hard to see him winning seven matches." "He's pretty stupid, don't you think?" "I don't think he's ready." As this continued, I wanted to throw up my hands and scream, "hey, somebody's got to win it."

That principle applies with a vengeance to this year's French Open. Between injuries, erratic play, parity, depth and the invariable narrative lacuna that seems to strike tennis every spring (I mean, doesn't it seem like they played the Australian a long, long time ago?), Roland Garros '97 is a tough call for both men and women. Injuries have forced Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Thomas Enqvist, Todd Martin and Mal Washington out of this year's tournament. Sampras, Graf and Hingis are among the top players who've been injured this year but will be in Paris.

The Men: Overview

All right, so is this the year for Pete? No. But won't failing to win the French make him an incomplete champion? No.

My feeling about Sampras is that while he'd love to win the French, he's not going to lose any sleep if he doesn't. He's built his game -- from body and strokes to match strategy and playing schedule -- around taking the big hardware at Wimbledon and the Open. Those two Australian crowns have been nice by-products. The flow of the tennis year makes it not too worth his while to put excessive energy into Paris. He's tried every match play scenario -- enter a bunch of clay tournaments, play only a couple, work on his baseline game, come up more. But one thing he hasn't done is spend considerable weeks actually practicing on red clay with European grinders like Alex Corretja or Thomas Muster.

The deal for Sampras is this: He'll come to the French, take his chances, hit a lot of balls, grub out some matches and if the draw opens up, great.

If he doesn't have to work too hard the first week, maybe he has a shot to sneak out the title. My thinking is that he'll hit the invariable quarter-semi wall, toss his orange-soaked shoes into the Seine Rivers and then blissfully head to England for his beloved grass.

Here are the other leading contenders:

Thomas Muster can never be counted out on clay. Forget the fact that he's failed to defend his titles in Monte Carlo and Rome. Forget how early he's lost on clay this spring. He is to clay what Becker is to grass: A perennial contender by sheer dint of tenacity and comfort on the surface. Would you want to tell him anything else?

Another lefty, Marcelo Rios, has begun fulfilling his promise by winning at Monte Carlo and reaching the Italian Open finals. This year's French is a put up or shut up tournament for this fluid, prickly Chilean. He needs to reach at least the semis if he's to continue advancing his career. But he certainly has the talent and game to do it -- a wonderful claycourt blend of Connors on the backhand and McEnroe on the forehand. Hopefully, he'll keep his head together.

Alex Corretja, known to all as the vanquished quarterfinalist of last year's fifth-set tiebreak at the Open versus Sampras, is starting to assert himself in a big way. He's one of the many Spaniards who are becoming major factors in tennis. His win over Rios in the Italian Open final showed he can go the distance. He's powerful on both sides, can run well and has an impressive all-court game.

Other potential threats include Michael Chang, who's in the hunt at every event but hasn't had quite the staying power in Paris since winning it in '89; '96 champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who is just recovering from an injury and claims "it will take a miracle" for him to successfully defend his title; Richard Krajicek, a guy who can beat or lose to anyone on any given day, but a threat on any surface; Andrei Medvedev, a former top tenner who has recently resurrected his game and played great tennis in winning the German Open; Goran Ivanisevic, an underrrated claycourt player but a mental midget; fluid Carlos Moya, another Spaniard who knocked off Becker on his way to the Australian finals; and Sergei Brugera, the Spanish dude who would like to remind his compatriots that he deserves to be at the head of the class since he won this event twice.

The Men: Draw At A Glance

Here's how the draw would shake out if all 16 seeds reached their appointed rounds:

    1. Pete Sampras
    15. Marc Rosset
    8. Carlos Moya
    9. Alex Corretja
    3. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
    14. Tim Henman
    12. Alberto Berasategui
    5. Thomas Muster
    11. Alberto Costa
    13. Wayne Ferreira
    4. Goran Ivanisevic
    7. Marcelo Rios
    10. Felix Mantilla
    16. Sergei Brugera
    2. Michael Chang

Of course by the round of 16 the draw will be filled with so-called upsets.

Everyone knows that the French Open is a landmine -- no, make that more of a quagmire -- teeming with topspinning spoilers who by the time the last ball is struck look much more like favorites than many a seed.

Sampras, for example, has a potentially tough first-round match with claycourt expert Fabrice Santoro. Pete should get through that, though, and then have another tricky day with Spain's Francisco Clavet, a deceptively creative lefty. From there, Sampras' draw looks clear to the quarters.

It's bad luck for Spain, though, as Moya and Corretja are on a path towards a round of 16 battle. Along the way, Moya could run up against grinders Fernando Meligeni or Javier Frana. Corretja has an interesting first-round match with talented Karim Alami, a Morrocan with a claycourt win over Chang.

I'm thinking Corretja will take out Moya with his big serve (he aced Sampras 25 times at the Open), powerful forehand and nicely-fit game. Alex will also avenge his loss to Sampras and make it to the semis.

The next quarter of the draw is extremely soft. I'll be amazed if Kafelnikov and Henman actually make it to the round of 16. Henman could play Aussie power mogul Mark Philippoussis in the second round -- a match where I'd give the edge to Philippoussis. Oddly enough, for all his big serving, clay is an asset for Mark, as the slow surface makes it easier for him to cover the court and strike his heavily-topspun groundstrokes.

There's more bad luck for Spain when Berasategui faces off against Medvedev in the first round. I'll pick Medvedev to knock him off and advance to a round of 16 match with Muster that will be one of the tournament's best matches.

As we head down the other half of the draw, I foresee smooth movement for Alberto Costa, the dangerous, but not quite ready for prime time Spaniard.

This guy's been hovering around the late stages of tournaments for a couple of years, but still has yet to reach a semi. He'll make his way to the quarters, and if Goran can hold his head together, the two will lock up in a wonderful stylistic contrast. Of course that's a big if. Goran's first match is versus tough Swede Magnus Gustafasson. Lurking in his path to the quarters are such spoilers as big-serving Daniel Vacek, grinder Chris Woodruff (the guy who knocked off Agassi at last year's French), the Laverian Petr Korda and underachieving Wayne Ferreira. This whole section is filled with hotheads.

The bottom quarter is filled with quality players. Rios should march nimbly to the round of 16. He's scheduled to meet Mantilla, but Mantilla's second round match is versus the winner of the intriguing first-round encounter between Jim Courier and Magnus Larsson. The Courier-Larsson match is vivid proof of Boris Becker's statement that "tennis years are measured like dog years." Just six years ago, Courier played Larsson in the third round of the French. Down two sets to one, the American won the fourth, 7-5, and the fifth, 6-2. "That's the kind of win that can take a guy to a title," Jimmy Connors said that day in the NBC booth. Indeed, Courier went on to take the French in '91 and '92. Larsson has become a classic spoiler in the tradition of Johan Kriek or Henri Leconte -- good enough to slash his way through anyone, but lacking the mental and physical staying power to win tournaments.

And Courier, now unseeded, has thoroughly lost his Lendlesque aura. The match with Larsson is a 50-50 bet. I'll take Courier, who'll then be vanquished by Mantilla.

Much like Courier, Sergei Bruguera has lost his champion's luster. But he's shown signs this year of resurfacing, as evidenced by beating Chang and Sampras to reach the Lipton finals. I like his chances of advancing far in Paris, including a win over Chang. As for Michael, he seems a bit out of sorts this spring. Though he performed with typical grit in winning Indian Wells, Memphis, Hong Kong and Orlando (the latter on clay), save for his run to the finals at the French in '95 (where Muster manhandled him), it's never quite seemed that he's fully comfortable on the red stuff. So much of his resources have been devoted to adding strength and power that Chang seems increasingly incapable of playing the patient game that earned him the title in '89. Moreover, today's players hit the ball with much topspin and pace than they did then.

Here's who I see reaching the semis:

  • Corretja vs. Muster in a great match, filled with fire, brimstone and dozens of topspinning rallies that will leave us viewers feeling that these guys are playing another sport.

  • Costa vs. Rios, a match that will have its share of great shots from Rios, as well as indifferent, dreary claycourt play from each. Rios will reach his first Grand Slam final.

In the all-lefty finals, Muster will have too much experience, consistency and moxie for Rios. The Chilean won't feel relaxed enough to experiment, and instead find himself in one long rally after another.

Winner: Muster

The Women: Leading Contenders

On many a Sunday afternoon in the early '70s, a large American car would pull up to a public court where I played in Los Angeles. The door would open and out would gingerly surface 84-year-old May Sutton Bundy, winner of Wimbledon in 1905. Bundy would take the court for a few minutes, whack a few forehands in a relatively spritely manner, get back in the car and zoom home. Steffi Graf is 56 years ahead of that schedule.

For several years now, Graf has been a physical and emotional wreck. Back, knees, wrist and family have all given her aching pain. But she continues getting out of the car and delivering the goods.

And even now, with Martina Hingis on top of the computer rankings, Steffi is unquestionably the reigning queen of women's tennis. She is like the British Empire in its final stages -- rickety, barely holding it together, fragile in the corners, but a grand sight nonetheless.

More importantly, she's endured and prevailed where others have failed to step up.

Hingis, of course, is the "It Girl" of tennis in 1997 -- and as I wrote last month, for good reason. Her injury and month-long exile haven't helped her in the short-term (in the long term it might help diffuse any pressure she might feel about taking Steffi's crown).

Monica Seles? Oh, Monica, you have been more damaged than Steffi. From knives and lawsuits to a father on death's door, you have been distracted from the mission. You have grown as a person, faced the emotional demons and in the process have lost that split-second attack which made you a tiger. Spunky Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is another player who has lost her focus. The good news, we hear, is that she's also learned there's more to life than tennis. But a counterpunching game like hers requires supreme dedication and fitness.

The two other big contenders are Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez. Pierce has started playing sharp tennis this spring, most notably when she blitzed Martinez to win the Italian. Martinez is a very good claycourt player who rarely suffers bad losses but seems like she can hardly be bothered to score the big win.

Looming close, but not likely to win, are Amanda Coetzer, who handed Graf the worst loss of her career ten days ago; Lindsay Davenport and Jana Novotna, both top tenners but players I refuse to take seriously on clay; and talented racket wielders Iva Majoli and Irina Spirlea.

The Women: Draw At A Glance

Here's how it would pan out for the woman:

    1. Martina Hingis
    16. Barbara Paulus
    14. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy
    6. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
    3. Monica Seles
    10. Mary Pierce
    12. Mary Joe Fernandez
    8. Anke Huber
    5. Lindsay Davenport
    9. Iva Majoli
    15. Karina Habsudova
    4. Jana Novotna
    7. Conchita Martinez
    11. Amanda Coetzer
    13. Irina Spirlea
    2. Steffi Graf

Moving through the draw, we'll likely see a third round match between Hingis and Russian phenom Anna Kournikova. Three years ago I saw Hingis double-bagel Kournikova in the U.S. Open juniors. They're both better players, but Kournikova is still in the R&D mode -- that is, she's still rounding out her game. Hingis will stomp her, but that's no ding on Kournikova, who within three years will be a top ten player. Even if she drops a set to someone, Hingis should breeze to the quarters.

In the next section, there's an intriguing first-round matchup between Meilen Tu (who beat Hingis in the finals of that same year's U.S. Open junior title) and the fluctuating Natasha Zvereva. Even though Zvereva is no longer an elite singles player, it would be a good win for Tu. But Zvereva will win this one. Sanchez Vicario will emerge the victor of this part of the draw, and in the quarters will encounter Hingis.

That quarter figures to be a prime test for both players: Can Arantxa still deliver the goods on her favorite surface? Is Hingis fully recovered from her injury and ready to further dominate? If Arantxa is playing exceptionally sharp tennis early in the tournament (that is, dusting her opponents), she might be able to take this match. But if she's only playing so-so tennis, Hingis will win.

Even more intriguing is the possibility of a third-round match between Seles and Venus Williams. Williams is making her Grand Slam debut, and to reach Seles she'll need to beat the deceptively tough Naoko Sawamatsu and the winner of a match between tour veterans Nathalie Tauziat and Rene Simpson.

Beating Sawamatsu and Tauziat is a tall order for Williams. Venus claims not to be intimidated by anyone, and her father asserts that she'll go down as one of tennis' greatest champions. But she won't begun her run in 1997.

The red clay won't be friendly for this ball-slapping, athletic player. My hat's off to Venus if she reaches that third round. She won't.

Seles is then slated for a round of 16 match with Mary Pierce. This could be a barn-burner, with both players hitting the tar out of the ball. But it's also a match between two power players who have unfortunately been forced to spend more time tending to their fragile psyches (and family matters) than tennis. Seles will whip Pierce, and then tromp through to the semis, as the adjacent section of the draw features yet another pair of underachievers in Mary Joe Fernandez and Anke Huber. Now the good news for Fernandez fans is that she recently beat Pierce to win the German Open -- only the seventh title of a career that began in the Evert era. But Mary Joe's also slated to meet clever Miriam Oremans in the third round, a player who whipped her in the Fed Cup this past winter.

As for Huber, she will be upset by gritty American Kimberly Po in the first round. Po's become a tennis lover's cult story this year, resurrecting her mid-grade career and cracking the top 20. She could well reach the quarters.

On the other half of the draw, Davenport's round of 16 match with Majoli will rival Seles-Pierce on the power meter. I'd love to see the spirited Majoli start breaking through at big events, and I think she'll make progress at this year's French. She'll beat Davenport and then have just the matchup she wants when she takes on athletic netrusher Jana Novotna in the quarters.

Though obviously more comfortable on faster surfaces, Novotna isn't that bad on clay at all. Last year in Paris, she knocked off Seles. This year, she'll still have just enough claycourt smarts to keep Majoli at bay with a mix of slice backhands and nimble sorties at the net.

I'm fascinated by the possibility of a round of 16 match between Martinez and Coetzer. Coetzer is somewhat of a "B"-level Arantxa -- a small, ball-chasing counterpuncher who's hard to take out of a match. But while a flatter-hitting Majoli, Pierce or Fernandez could be primer fodder for Coetzer, the high-bouncing, enervating topspin of Martinez is too tough for her. Conchita will play good stuff to beat Coetzer.

Graf will enjoy the sharpness that comes from playing Spirlea. In many ways, Spirlea reminds me of Graf: a sound stroker, good athlete, solid ball striker. She'll make Steffi work, but just enough to get her in shape for yet another couple of showdowns with Martinez and Novotna -- players who succumb both mentally and physically to Graf.

The good news for Graf is that players who can really bug her at this year's French -- the pesky Arantxa, the powerful Pierce, the tenacious Seles, the ascending Hingis -- are all in the other half of the draw. They will suck the life out of each other while Steffi hits big forehands at Roland Garros and spends her off-days visiting medical specialists all over Paris.

Here's how I see the semis shaking:

  • Hingis vs. Seles in the war of the worlds. Seles took her to a third-set tiebreak at Hilton Head. Monica will give everything she has, and make it very difficult for Martina. Hingis will be worn out from her quarter with Sanchez and may also have trouble generating pace on the slow clay. It's a tough match to call. If it's hot and fast, Hingis will be able to do more with the ball. But if it's slower, both players' fitness comes into play.

    It would be great if Seles was to add more tactical wrinkles to her game -- such as coming to net more. But I think Monica is in too much of a bunker-like mood to innovate. She wants to hunker down with her loved wins and do it on sheer guts. She's got more of this than anyone, but that's not enough. Hingis in three.

  • Graf vs Novotna. As with Spirlea, Steffi will like these brisk, athletic rallies. The clay won't be friendly to Novotna's netrushing game. Steffi will enjoy the short points, and will take this in two.

Final: Hingis vs. Graf. Worn out by her matches with Sanchez and Seles, somewhat out of shape from her layoff, tired by the white lights of fame, Hingis isn't ready yet to take Steffi's crown. The draw and the circumstances will enable Steffi to once again turn in a command performance. Somehow, this champ is like a perennial undergraduate: She'll come into the exam room and forget all that's gone on with family and body. For two hours, she'll concentrate and run as only she can, working each point with her rapier forehand and low-bouncing slice backhand. The future belongs to Hingis, but for now the '97 French Open is yet another testimony to Steffi Graf's ability to repress and impress.

Graf in two.

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This column is copyrighted by Joel Drucker, all rights reserved.

Joel's background includes 25 years as a player, instructor, tournament director and writer. His stories have appeared in all of the leading tennis magazines (Tennis, World Tennis, Tennis Week, Tennis Match, and Racquet). He has also written about tennis for many general interest publications, including Cigar Aficionado, Diversion, Men's Journal, San Francisco Focus and the San Diego Reader.


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